Shiny Unhappy People
Last night I watched my six-year-old daughter thrash on an inflatable pink guitar while lip-synching emotively to Avril Lavigne’s “I’m With You.” It was a bravura performance, one of many she gives us on a regular basis, but not as exuberant as her take on Pink’s “Get This Party Started” or as disturbing as the full-body vamp she does on “Hey Baby” by No Doubt. She has expressed an interest in midriff tops and low-cut jeans. My little girl is a pop diva. At six. By the time she’s a teenager, I may very well have to be committed.
Being amongst the kids, as I must now that I have school-age children, is an adventure in culture shock. On the first day of this new school year, I passed a third-grader wearing a short dress with “Pimpette” emblazoned across the front. Among the rules and regs for my kids’ elementary school are such items as “Cell phones must be turned off during class time” and “No piercings except for ear lobes.” CNN reported recently on a new trend in back-to-school shopping—kids as young as eight shopping sans parents, with credit cards in hand. The demographic between 9 and 12 has its own name, “tweens,” and market share beyond the toy industry. When I was nine, the only fashion angst I experienced was whether G.I. Joe should be in jungle or arctic camos for that day’s mission. Today I’ve got to fight with my children over whether their jeans are sufficiently “street.”
Such are kids in the 21st century, the subject of aggressive marketing, enjoying (and expecting) freedoms and privileges that technology affords. As we become more reliant on computers and other shiny-beepy things to function, so it is necessary to realize our kids are using such things. They do just about everything we do now—they surf the net, text-message, consume in mass and instant quantities. The only barrier between us and our kids is adolescence, and so it’s little wonder that they seem to be growing up with almost feral intensity.
Nickelodeon, “the first network for kids,” feeds this phenomenon with remarkable energy. While still the network of such fine kid-oriented fare as Rugrats and The Wild Thornberrys, it has learned to compete with the edgier Cartoon Network with wonderfully subversive toons like SpongeBob SquarePants and the funny-as-hell The Fairly Oddparents. Most importantly, however, Nick has fixed its crosshairs firmly on the tweens by aggressively programming music videos (I see more videos on Nick than on its fellow Viacom channel MTV) and live-action shows like Spin the Bottle (a music-interview show) and an upcoming series starring Lil Romeo and his dad Master P—all featuring kid-appeal personalities in the decidedly grown-up contexts of fame and fortune.
Nick’s newest toon, My Life As a Teenage Robot, is also driven by the Tweeny hunger for the rewards due them on the other side of puberty. Its protagonist, a mega-powered battle ‘bot who only wants to be a normal, even popular, teenager, is an avatar for the journey into the magical world of high school, where the clothes, the attitudes, and even the petty politics are just so much cooler than in the drab world of toys and bikes and parental control.
After years of failed attempts, Mrs. Wakeman (voiced by Candi Milo), the local old-lady mad scientist—doesn’t every small town have one?—has succeeded in creating the ultimate battle-robot, the XJ-9 (Janice Kawaye). Packed to the eyebrows with servos, widgets, missiles, and lasers, XJ-9 is the essential device for defense and rescue against the world’s most dire foes. The only problem, however, is that in order to operate independently, XJ-9 had to be given a personality it’s all very technical), which manifests itself as an awkward but earnest teenager who prefers to be called “Jenny” and wants nothing more than to be a real girl. Thus Mrs. Wakeman must be both operator and Mom to her creation, while Jenny is constantly torn between her duties as a superweapon and trying to fit in with the rest of the kids.
This theme is nothing new, of course. It’s Pinocchio, but closer in tone to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, a connection surely realized by creator Rob Renzetti. A veteran animator from Genndy Tartakovsky’s posse, he worked extensively on Tartakovsky’s Cartoon Network projects, directing episodes of Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack, all heavily influenced by anime and all dealing directly or indirectly with the themes of the overpowered misfit struggling to fit into the normal world. Renzetti’s own short-lived toon, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones?, was an early take on the plot of a robot in school.
Like his previous work, Teenage Robot is light comedy laced with loving techno-fetishism, as for example when Jenny uses her finger-mounted laser as a bunsen burner in chemistry class and is sabotaged by a bobby pin from one of her bitchier classmates, the malfunction depicted in a detailed schematic of Jenny’s inner workings. The bitch in question, Brit (Moira Quirk), and her uptown partner Tiff (Cree Summer) are the most popular girls in school who resent the attention now being paid to Jenny. Expect them to embark on an endless shadow-war of chicanery and attacks on Jenny’s fragile ego, but also expect their comeuppances to be temporary and without consequence. They will always be the Big Girls on Campus and Jenny will always be the outsider, the misfit.
So goes episodic cartooning, but it’s a little disheartening to consider that such a turn reinforces those lessons we all remember and which the kiddies, eager for all the post-adolescent goodies, will also learn: virtue is not always its own reward, and one need not be likable to be popular. All we can do is hope that Renzetti turns Jenny and her priorities around, or My Life As a Teenage Robot will quickly become a depressing one indeed.